Antiscience beliefs and U.S. politics

Many of us were disappointed not to see any serious mention of scientific issues in the recent U.S. presidential debates. Global warming, for example, was never discussed at all, even in the last debate on foreign policy, where it would have naturally fit.

After all, even the U.S. military has now recognized the reality of global warming, and is preparing for a world where climate changes alter the geopolitical landscape in new and potentially very dangerous ways. Among the perils are increasing droughts and crop failures, as well as rising sea levels that render uninhabitable large swaths of currently populated lands.

Recently Shawn Lawrence Otto, an author, screenwriter and science advocate, together with several other scientists and journalists, set up a website with 14 questions for U.S. presidential candidates. The two candidates (actually their respective campaign staffs) submitted responses which can be read here. While the responses were generally moderate, they fell short of offering specific programs to advance science or improve science education, nor did they make any specific promises on future scientific funding.

In an accompanying essay, which is available both in the October issue of Scientific American as well as online, Otto soberly warns that the U.S. is steadily walking away from its leadership position in science, and that this is an “existential crisis” for the future of the democracy.

Here are just a few highlights of his essay:

  1. The U.S. “founding fathers” were science enthusiasts, and designed the constitution on the premise that science-based facts could be used as a foundation for a true democracy.
  2. Democrats and others of the “left,” as part of their focus on environmental and health issues, often promote scientifically well-repudiated notions such as that cell phones or smart meters cause brain cancer, and that vaccines cause autism.
  3. Republicans and others of the “right,” as part of their focus on antiregulation and fundamentalism, insist that the whole notion of global warming (not just the likely human contribution to global warming) is a hoax, and that “both sides of the issue” should be taught to schoolchildren on overwhelmingly well-established facts such as the age of the earth and evolution.
  4. Although antiscience viewes are found on both sides of the aisle, Otto believes more blame is due on the Republican side, a fact that he painfully adds “gives him no pleasure,” because his own family helped found the Minnesota branch of the Republican Party, which party, during the years of Otto’s youth, was a exponent of scientific research and the responsible utilization of technology.
  5. House Speaker John Boehner, who now controls much of the legislation through Congress, has argued for teaching creationism in science classes, and once asserted that climate scientists teach that carbon dioxide is a carcinogen.
  6. Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann warned in a debate that “innocent little 12-year-old girls” were being forced by the government to have an injection (to prevent HPV) that would cause “mental retardation.”
  7. Presidential candidates Herman Cain, Rick Perry and Ron Paul labeled climate change “a hoax”.
  8. Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin claimed that pregnancy from rape is impossible, because the female body has ways to “shut the whole thing down.”
  9. The recent wave of antiscience sentiment arguably has its roots in an unlikely place — the fad of postmodern critiques of science, which was promoted in the 1960s through the 1990s by left-leaning humanities and philosophy academics. The U.S. right wing has now seized on this philosophy to argue that scientific findings are just “opinions.”

Otto argues that the most serious threat of the current antiscience movement is not merely that it threatens science education and technology leadership, but that it threatens the very notion that there is a common set of empirical facts on which federal, state and local governments can base public policy. As a result, governmental power is migrating to those who can shout the loudest, with the most money. This is very definition of tyranny.

Otto’s well-researched and articulate essay is well worth reading. More than once.

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